Describe Marlon Brando and you could be suggesting keywords to position a contemporary luxury resort: Authentic. Unpredictable. Independent. Intense. Creative. Rebellious. Innovative. Mysterious. Sexy.
The talented and charismatic actor was all of the above, and this past summer his surname became the flag of a French Polynesian resort.
The alignment of the Brando brand and Tetiaroa, the unpopulated island he bought and used as a personal retreat for the last decades of his life, attracted outsized attention for a property that has only 35 keys. (Click here or on the image for a larger view of a map of Onetahi, the location for the Brando; and click here or on the photos for a slideshow of more images from the resort.)
It also represents both the opportunity and challenge of a lifetime for Pacific Beachcomber, which developed and manages the Brando, as well as four InterContinentals and Paul Gauguin Cruises in French Polynesia.
The resort’s premise seems can’t-miss: Brando (the man) withdrew to a place so remote that he succeeded in separating his world from everyone else’s. Once the doors to his personal paradise open, who could refuse an invitation to walk through?
But first comes the question of balancing the man and the brand. How “present” should the actor be on-property? And which aspects of his complex personality should get focus?
Brando’s heirs have been astute managers of his image; he was No. 6 on Forbes magazine’s “Top Earning Dead Celebrities” list the year after he died. And the Brando’s opening had a built-in publicity hook: It received its first guests on July 1, the 10th anniversary of the actor’s death.
How present is Brando in the Brando?
The timing, it turns out, was due more to circumstance than design; it opened more than a year behind schedule. (Everything required to construct the resort had to be brought in from Tahiti by ship, and unpredictable weather frequently made the 33 nautical miles between Tetiaroa and Tahiti impassable, General Manager Silvio Bion said.)
Upon arrival, guests soon discover that beyond its name, the resort is very lightly themed around Marlon Brando. The logo of the property is two seahorses, and I did not see the actor’s visage anywhere on site — no Stanley Kowalski, no Vito Corleone, no Col. Kurtz.
Not even Fletcher Christian. The fine dining restaurant, Les Mutines (The Mutineers), is a reference to “Mutiny on the Bounty”: Brando played mutineer Christian in the 1962 movie, which was filmed in nearby waters.
Brando’s granddaughter, Tumi, works there as an excursion guide, but that’s not publicized.
That’s it. Management seemed to understand that while guests might be fans of Brando, be curious about Brando and be motivated in part to later mention that they stayed on Brando’s island, they do not arrive seeking a fan experience.
Brando’s presence is mostly communicated as an implied endorsement rather than a theme. He is credited with mandating the property’s sensitivity to environmental concerns, and even cited for originating the idea that deep sea water be used to cool rooms. The property’s goal is to become the first resort campus to be certified Platinum under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system.
Part of the property’s commitment to environmental stewardship is the use of Te Mana O Te Moana (“Spirit of the Ocean”), a local nonprofit focused on protection of marine wildlife, to train and employ guides who lead guests on excursions. (Richard Bailey, president of Pacific Beachcomber, is a founding member of the organization.)
The property also has an ecostation staffed by a scientist-in-residence who regularly sets up a screen next to Bob’s Bar in the evening and gives beachside lectures about her research.
A complex hotel ecosystem
I visited the Brando toward the end of its second month in operation and wondered if it would have enough superlatives to justify its $3,850 nightly rate for a one-bedroom “villa,” a stratospheric amount even for a mostly inclusive property in this notoriously expensive French Overseas Territory. (The nightly rate for a two-bedroom villa is $7,700, and for a three-bedroom, $11,550.)
Its launch in July, five years after construction began, was intentionally soft, with more than 50% of the rooms blocked from occupancy for the first three months. “We wanted to start slowly,” Bion explained. “We are on a very remote island and are self-contained. We wanted to make sure we can deal with any matter.”
It’s impossible to evaluate the Brando in isolation from existing resorts in French Polynesia. It has joined a hospitality ecosystem that includes some of the best-run, most beautiful and expensive properties in the world.
The St. Regis Bora Bora, a perennial winner in the Travel Weekly Readers Choice Awards category of Best Resort Worldwide, was also recently named one of the world’s best 100 hotels by Fodor’s. The Four Seasons Bora Bora was picked by Travel + Leisure as its top hotel in French Polynesia. And there are a half-dozen other properties in the region that would be contenders for those honors if these particular properties didn’t exist.
Adding to the complexity of finding the Brando’s place in this lofty set is its specific geography. It’s hard to separate any French Polynesian property from its island base. Flat, small, uninhabited Tetiaroa must compete with the iconic profiles of Bora Bora and Moorea and excursion options in their villages.
Food, spa and nature
There are three areas that I felt truly distinguished the Brando: its food, its spa and the way it interprets its natural environment.
Prior to opening, Brando chef Antoine Soots spent three months in the kitchen of Michelin-star chef Guy Martin of Paris’ Le Grand Vefour. Soots’ sous chef at the Brando spent two months there, and their assistant, one. Martin is listed as executive chef of the property and helped design the menu, but Soots has added his own dishes and adjusts Martin’s recipes, depending on what is fresh and available.
The meals certainly raise the bar for all-inclusives worldwide, and that’s no backhanded compliment.
At the elegant Les Mutines and the more casual Beachcomber Cafe, meals were extraordinary. The atmosphere of Les Mutines was a hybrid South Pacific-formal; the design incorporates white hanging drapes in a way that provides a sense of intimacy and privacy, rare in an all-inclusive setting.
Beachcomber’s primary “fusion” was between sophisticated and casual, providing the option of eating inventive gastronomy with your toes in the sand.
The property’s spa, Varua, was its most distinctive and distinguishing feature. There may be other South Pacific eco-lodges where naturalists are well informed, and the dishes coming out of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s kitchen at his restaurant Lagoon at the Bora Bora St. Regis can certainly compete with what’s served at Les Mutines, but I have never been in a spa environment like the one I encountered at the Brando.
The first thing that struck me was how the spa campus is very different from the rest of the property. Varua is built over a lagoon dotted with pastel water lilies and lotus blossoms; as you approach, you feel as if you’re walking into a Monet painting, and the effect is instantly relaxing.
Most treatment rooms have a lagoon view or porch along the water’s edge, and the overall effect is that you have entered another world, a wonderful, collaborative design between people and nature.
Despite wide differences in island profiles, a near-common denominator has emerged in French Polynesian properties that include the word “resort”: overwater bungalows. They not only characterize most of the luxury inventory in French Polynesia but are available in properties as diverse as Rangiroa’s laid-back Kia Ora and Papeete’s package tour-friendly InterContinental Tahiti. Whether an island is mountainous or flat, isolated or populated, the overwater bungalow will be a luxury option.
Not so at the Brando.
And it’s a conscious omission. There are, instead, 35 beachfront villas.
I stayed in a one-bedroom villa. It was well-designed: One walks into a common area looking out floor-to-ceiling windows and a glass door leading to a private deck, infinity plunge pool, a landscaped beachfront, a few pieces of beach furniture and an infinite stretch of blue water beyond.
To the right is a master bedroom with a king-size bed and a view of the lagoon (a large, pop-up flat-screen TV is hidden just below the window). The villa’s most distinctive feature is an airy and spacious bathroom, connecting to an outdoor bathtub.
To the left of the entrance is a somewhat narrow media room, which can feel dark when the tall, thin, solid-wood unscreened windows aren’t open. That room can convert to a second bedroom when the sofa becomes a day bed/trundle bed that can sleep two children. The cushions are futon-firm — too firm for my 11- and 13-year-old sons, who were given duvets to sleep on the next night to soften things up a bit.
Another drawback for families tempted by the children-stay-free-in-the-media-room option is that the sole bathroom is accessed via the master bedroom, resulting in a bit less privacy than the adults might prefer. If money is not a concern, the two-bedroom villas would be a better option for families.
With only 35 rooms spread over a 193-acre islet, there is an implied promise of privacy that’s difficult to match in French Polynesia. Tetiaroa is composed of 12 motus (islets that ring a lagoon); the other motus can be visited by day-trippers from Tahiti, but the Brando’s, Onetahi, is exclusive to guests.
The good news is that with only 35 rooms and guests spread among the restaurants, beaches, spa, tennis court, fitness center, off-site excursions, longboards, swimming pools and outrigger canoes, you’re not likely to feel it’s crowded.
But given the amount of space available, I was surprised at how close the villas were to one another. The landscaping ensures you do not see other buildings from yours, and it’s very quiet, but the sense of having your own private beach is somewhat diminished if another guest wanders into view. (The villas’ beachfronts are contiguous and open to all; one imagines that if word got out that Brad and Angie were in residence, beachcombing guests would wander past their villa for a look.)
There is an option for booking the entirety of Onetahi, but yet another option — and perhaps part of the reason the properties are built in the proximity that they are — is that a large section of the beach is being reserved for private home ownership.
A replicable brand?
I’ve mentioned that the resort is “mostly inclusive.” It includes food and beverage, including 24-hour room service (though some wines and spirits are extra); one spa treatment per day, per villa bedroom; some tours (most of which are by boat); and Internet. Tipping is not included, and clients will have to budget for the flight between Tahiti and Onetahi; that cost is rising in April to $765 per adult for the 66-mile roundtrip.
There is a minimum stay of three nights, but Bion said the average has been between four and five. The biggest surprise for him, he said, is how many families have booked.
Assuming the Brando succeeds, I asked if the intention was to turn “Brando” into a brand that could be applied to other properties.
“It’s not for me to say,” Bion responded diplomatically.
If a brand arises based on this flagship resort, its attributes would be attractive: sophistication without fanciness, a focus on gastronomy, stewardship of the environment and quietude. Spas that are a world apart could be a signature element.
It’s a formula that can be replicated. The question is whether rates could be commensurate without the implied tagline “Marlon Brando slept here.”